05/24/2010 01:14 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Scientists to Congress & Obama: count the carbon in biomass

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Today a group of leading scientists from across the country sent a letter to congressional leaders and Obama officials urging them to carefully count the carbon from biomass burned for energy as part of a comprehensive climate bill or any other legislation or regulation.   The letter makes abundantly clear that failing to do so risks sacrificing forests around the globe and putting more pollution into the atmosphere, not less.

As my colleagues have written about (here, here and here more generally), the American Power Act proposed by Senators Kerry and Lieberman provides a solid framework for reducing our global warming pollution and investing in a cleaner economy. Unfortunately, as proposed, the bill would turn a blind eye towards emissions from biomass combustion, threatening to significantly undermine the bills carbon reduction goals. 

I did a little video late last year explaining the fundamental flaw in the approach that the APA would take. The letter from the scientists puts it clearly:

Replacement of fossil fuels with bioenergy does not directly stop carbon dioxide emissions from tailpipes or smokestacks. Although fossil fuel emissions are reduced or eliminated, the combustion of biomass replaces fossil emissions with its own emissions (which may even be higher per unit of energy because of the lower energy to carbon ratio of biomass). Bioenergy can reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide if land and plants are managed to take up additional carbon dioxide beyond what they would absorb without bioenergy…. On the other hand, clearing or cutting forests for energy, either to burn trees directly in power plants or to replace forests with bioenergy crops, has the net effect of releasing otherwise sequestered carbon into the atmosphere, just like the extraction and burning of fossil fuels. That creates a carbon debt, may reduce ongoing carbon uptake by the forest, and as a result may increase net greenhouse gas emissions for an extended time period and thereby undercut greenhouse gas reductions needed over the next several decades. 

Like the climate bill adopted by the House last year, APA would explicitly exempt power plants and industry facilities from having to hold emissions permits for the CO2 pollution coming out of their smokestacks when they burn “renewable biomass.” The term “renewable biomass” was defined in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 as part of the updated Renewable Fuel Standard. While that original definition is far from perfect, it does prohibit the most destructive sources of biomass (think clear cutting public forests or plowing under endangered habitat). Unfortunately both the House ACES bill and APA would redefine renewable biomass to mean just about any source of biomass.  The proposed definition contains absolutely zero protections for at risk habitat, forests, or grasslands on private lands and lacks needed safeguards on our federal forests as well.   For example, under the current definition of biomass chopping down and grinding up forests that are home to imperiled species is not allowed.  Nor is plowing under the few remnants of native praire left in this country (only about 4% of the original remain).  In contrast, under the APA definition, both these activites are not only allowed, they are encouraged.   (For more on what is at stake see this fact sheet.)

So between blowing open the definition and turning a blind eye to the emissions, you end up with a biomass loophole big enough to drive a truck through—a truck loaded with big, old trees that should be keeping carbon out of the air and providing habitat to animals struggling to adapt to the changing climate.

Most importantly, Congress needs to understand that they’re not just creating a biomass loophole, they’re actively encouraging biofuels refiners, utilities and industry to burn more biomass. We have the Renewable Fuel Standard, and I’ve written a lot recently about the corn ethanol tax credit. The House climate bill includes a renewable electric standard that would require the use of renewables, which on the whole is an important step, but the biopower part of this is another big incentive for burning biomass. And then of course the climate bill itself creates a big incentive for burning biomass by holding companies accountable for the pollution caused by burning fossil fuels but not counting the carbon released from burning biomass. It will only be natural for companies to use the stuff they don’t have pay for.

This is like squeezing on a balloon—if we only squeeze on part (the fossil fuel emissions), we’re just going to shift the emissions to the other part (the biomass emissions).

So how big a deal is the biomass loophole? Well the Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration recently published its Annual Energy Outlook for 2010, and it provides some insight. Unfortunately, taking its lead from Congress, EIA does not count the emissions from the combustion of biomass in its total greenhouse gas emissions, but they do add up these emissions. I’m going to write more about EIA’s data tomorrow, but the scale is eye-popping:

… [I]ncluding direct CO2 emissions from biomass energy combustion would increase the 2008 total for energy-related CO2 emissions by 353 million metric tons (6.1 percent). In the AEO2010 Reference case, including emissions from biomass would increase the projected 2035 total for energy-related CO2 emissions by 813 million metric tons (12.9 percent).

EIA’s number for 2020 is about half a billion metric tons of which 215 million is an increase over 2007, the earliest year they report. For a little context, that increase would be equal over 20% of the total reductions targeted for 2020 by both the House ACES and Kerry-Lieberman APA. And this represents the BAU reference case forecast without the added incentives for biomass combustion in the climate bills.  Now, of course, direct emissions are not the same as the careful net emissions accounting that the scientists are urging Congress to embrace, but changes in soil carbon, nitrous oxide emissions from fertilizer applications, or the limited and slow regrowth of burned up biomass can easily make bioenergy just as polluting as fossil fuels especially over the next 20-30 years.

Bottom line, EIA’s data clearly shows that the carbon emissions associated with bioenergy threaten the very basic goal of climate legislation. We’re talking about a block of pollution equal to roughly half of the reductions the bill is supposed to provide. Biomass sourced carefully could really be part of the solution but, how can we hope to get good biomass or solve global warming if we don’t count all the source of pollution as pollution. You can’t fix a problem if you don’t first acknowledge that it exists.

It’s time for Congress to act and pass a comprehensive climate bill. They should follow the scientists and the science and account for biomass emissions carefully.

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.